Over the weekend, China claimed a major win by launching the first commercial flight of the C919, the country’s first domestically manufactured large passenger jet built by the Commercial Aviation Corporation of China (COMAC). However, some non-China-based aviation manufacturers and cybersecurity firms may opt to use the term “domestically manufactured” loosely.
According to CNN, the C919’s first flight left Shanghai at 10:32 am. Sunday and landed at the Beijing Capital International Airport at 12:31 p.m. This is being hailed as an important moment in China’s strategy to boost domestic manufacturing by 2025 and reduce reliance on foreign companies in the aviation sector.
While manufactured in China, many of the airplane’s components do come from Western companies. Leading to further scrutiny of the aircraft’s development are allegations that a Chinese state-aligned adversar conducted cyber intrusions against several of those companies that make the C919’s components. These allegations are detailed in a lengthy and detailed 2019 report from cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike as well as a series of indictments against both cyber actors and insiders.
CrowdStrike could not be reached for comment, so this article is sourced entirely from the firm’s report and U.S. Department of Justice indictments.
In CrowdStrike’s report, the company says its research corroborates a series of DOJ indictments released over the course of two years during the C919’s development that highly suggests cyber actors from China, company insiders and state directives targeted foreign companies to fill key technology and intelligence gaps to better compete with against the western aerospace industry.
“What follows is a remarkable tale of traditional espionage, cyber intrusions, and cover-ups, all of which overlap with activity CrowdStrike Intelligence has previously attributed to the China-based adversary TURBINE PANDA,” CrowdStrike said in the 2019 report, alleging that the operations can be traced back to China’s Ministry of State Security’s (MSS) Jiangsu Bureau, the alleged perpetrators of the infamous 2015 U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) breach.
Cyberattacks beginning in 2010
According to CrowdStrike, Turbine Panda, conducted cyber intrusions against between 2010 and 2015 against foreign manufacturers of aviation components, including many that were chosen for the C919.
The state-owned enterprise (SOE) Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China announced in December 2009 that it had chosen CFM International’s (a joint venture between U.S.-based GE Aviation and French aerospace firm Safran, formerly Snecma) LEAP-X engine to provide a custom variant engine, the LEAP-1C, for the then-newly announced C919.
Despite the deal, both COMAC and fellow SOE the Aviation Industry Corporation of China were believed to be tasked by China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council (SASAC) with building an “indigenously created” turbofan engine that was comparable to the LEAP-X, CrowdStrike says in its report. In 2016, the Aero Engine Corporation of China produced the CKJ-1000AX engine, which bears multiple similarities to the LEAP-1C engine.
While CrowdStrike admitted that it is difficult to assess if the Chinese engine is a direct copy, the cybersecurity firm said it is highly likely that its makers benefitted significantly from the cyber campaign of the Jiangsu Bureau of the MSS (JSSD).
CrowdStrike, citing its own intelligence reporting and U.S. government sources, says the Chinese government uses a “multi-faceted system” of forced technology transfer, joint ventures, physical theft from insiders and cyber espionage to acquire information to fill key knowledge gaps.
One DOJ indictment, CrowdStrike says, describes initial preparatory action that included compromising Los Angeles-based Capstone Turbine servers and later using a doppelganger site as a strategic web compromise (SWC) in combination with DNS … to compromise other aerospace firms.”
From 2010 to 2015, the linked JSSD operators are believed to have targeted a variety of aerospace-related targets … using two China-based APT favorites, PlugX and Winnti, and malware assessed to be unique to the group dubbed Sakula.
Many individuals associated with the campaign are “assessed to have storied histories in legacy underground hacking circles within China dating back to at least 2004,” CrowdStrike says, citing the DOJ.
As detailed in CrowdStrike’s report, the U.S. Department of Justice released several indictments from 2017 through October 2018, charging several individuals with activities related to theft of trade secrets and hacking related to the development of the C919.
The indictments were against Sakula developer YU Pingan, JSSD Intelligence Officer XU Yanjun, GE employee and insider ZHENG Xiaoqing, U.S. Army Reservist and assessor JI Chaoqun, and 10 JSSD-affiliated cyber operators.
“What makes these DoJ cases so fascinating is that, when looked at as a whole, they illustrate the broad, but coordinated efforts the JSSD took to collect information from its aerospace targets,” CrowdStrike says in its report. “In particular, the operations connected to activity CrowdStrike Intelligence tracked as TURBINE PANDA showed both traditional human-intelligence (HUMINT) operators and its cyber operators working in parallel to pilfer the secrets of several international aerospace firms.”
CrowdStrike and the DOJ also detail how insiders and IT employees helped steal information and coverup the cyber activities, offering new insight into how adversaries leverage a wide variety of tools and techniques to accomplish their goals.
According to CrowdStrike and the DOJ, a GE insider was charged with using “an elaborate and sophisticated means” to steal GE trade secrets after being recruited by a Chinese aerospace official closely aligned with the country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.
In addition, IT employees at the Canada-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations body that sets global aviation standards, allegedly covered up a cyber intrusion by another alleged China state-sponsored actor that had been observed targeting the aviation industry.
CrowdStrike, citing public reporting, says the intrusion at ICAO was “likely designed to facilitate a strategic web compromise (SWC) attack … that would easily provide a springboard to target a plethora of other aerospace-related as well as foreign government victims.”
“Upon being alerted to the breach by the Aviation Information Sharing and Analysis Center (AISAC), the ICAO internal IT investigation staff was reportedly grossly negligent, and the cyber intruders may have had direct access to one of their superuser accounts,” CrowdStrike says in its report. “In addition, a file containing a list of all the potential organizations who were compromised by the incident mysteriously disappeared during further investigations.”
Both the ICAO IT supervisor in charge of the mishandled internal investigation and the ICAO’s secretary general who shelved recommendations to investigate the IT supervisor and his four team members, were both found by CrowdStrike to have ties to China’s aviation industry, CrowdStrike says.
Takeaways from four years later
This article is just a snippet of CrowdStrike’s reporting and what Turbine Panda and other associated groups are alleged to have done to help boost the Chinese aviation sector. But more than that, it tells the tale of how advanced persistent threat (APT) groups and other sophisticated threat actors will go to extraordinary means to accomplish their end goals.
That includes advanced hacking techniques, leveraging insiders, physical theft and collaborating with the massive underground cybercrime community to launch multi-faceted attacks against a particular organization or industry.
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